Opinion & Blogs » Back Page

The Myth of the Indian

If one's knowledge of Indians were indeed limited to film viewing, there would appear to be few living 20th-century Native peoples. The Indian would be dead

by

comment
The film image of Native Americans is that of "other." The Indian as virile barbarian. The Indian as devilish, anti-Christ. The Indian as Tonto-figure, serving his white master in the preordained task of westward expansion.

Of all the Indian figures in the history of film, the most widely known is Tonto. Today, the Lone Ranger and Tonto seem mythic, almost ageless; a part of a feudal past. … Tonto himself is the very model of the screen's "faithful Indian companion," smarter than Steppin' Fetchit and almost as clever as Charlie Chan without being inclined to spout so much ancient wisdom… .

On one side we see [in film] the noble red man, the faithful Tonto-like companion. On the other side we see the Indian as ruthless pillager. We see his primary occupation as plunderer; his principal recreation as rape; and his greatest pleasure the torture and seduction of the innocent, particularly women and children. We have the Puritan view of the Indian as savage sinner, the devil incarnate, offset against the new age "Redskinned Redeemers."

Our history is distorted in film. A case in point is "Pocahontas." Chief Roy Crazy Horse has written a strong protest of this Disney movie. He tells us that "The film distorts history beyond recognition. … Of all Powhatan's children, only Pocahontas is known, primarily because she became the hero of Euro-Americans as the 'good Indian,' one who saved the life of a white man. Not only is the 'good Indian/bad Indian theme' inevitably given new life by Disney, but the history as recorded by the English themselves, is badly falsified, in the name of 'entertainment.' … surely no ethnic, or political group has been subjected to as much or as frequent on-screen stereotyping than the native American."

It is the repetitive regularity of the Indian image that refines and reinforces the social stereotypes. It is an endless parade in which we have good Indians and we have bad Indians; we have "Savage Sinners" and we have "Redskinned Redeemers." In the thousands of individual films and the millions of frames in those films, we have few, if any, real Indians who are more than cardboard cutouts. Who have individuality or humanity, little, if any of home or village life, of the day-to-day world of Native Americans and their families. …

If one's knowledge of Indians were indeed limited to film viewing, there would appear to be few living 20th-century Native peoples. The Indian would be dead. With few exceptions, the Indian of the movies is the Indian of the frontier ways. Even in the 20th century, the screen Indian is likely to be at war, as in Tony Curtis' stoic Ira Hayes raising the flag on Iwo Jima, "The Outsider" (1961) or else a sports figure such as Robbie Benson's Olympic gold medal winner Billy Mills in "Running Brave" (1983)… .

The Indian in film is almost always a person of another time and another place. Indians are represented as dying, as a people on the road to disappearance, at best a tragic anachronism, and at worst as drunken dinosaurs. …

The Premise, the image, the idea behind all of these films is that the Indian is doomed. …

But as the British lawyer and poet A.P. Herbert wrote, "Life ain't like in the movies." We know from statistics that the Indian is far from vanishing. The rate of population increase among Indian people is significantly higher than the national average. On the 1990 census rolls, almost two million people declared themselves to be Native Americans. Half of the American Indian population is under 21 years of age. Indian communities and Indian people are alive and well. The Indian is not on the road to disappearance, but one of the fastest growing minority groups in the United States.

Why is this cinematic view of Indians important?

Because the media image is … an especially crucial and controlling one; because it is that image which looms large as non-Indians decide the fate of Indian people. Surely no ethnic, or political group has been subjected to as much or as frequent on-screen stereotyping than the Native American. Filmmakers have been making Indian movies for more than a century now, mostly without the Indian, because the Indian is the wrong man for the part or just too much trouble. I hope those days will soon be over. We have seen what a great Indian actor like Will Sampson can do with a part like that of the Indian in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," who must suffocate the sickness produced by the institutions of white society.

Now is the time when thoughtful and determined Native Americans are flying over the cuckoo's nest that is Hollywood. Indian filmmakers and actors intend to suffocate the old images and convert the screen Indian into a real Indian. Tonto, you may yet have your revenge. S



Rennard Strickland, a legal historian of Osage and Cherokee heritage, is Phillip Knight Professor of Law at the University of Oregon. He grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and did his undergraduate work at Northeastern Oklahoma, which was originally founded by the Cherokee Nation as the first collegiate-level education for an Indian tribe.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.




Letters to the editor may be sent to: letters@styleweekly.com


Tags

Add a comment